Churches Commit to Congolese Development Process

Back yard processing of palm oil in village of Ikengo. Until gifting of Congo’s palm oil plantations to administration cronies in the 70’s, the country was one of the world’s leading producers.

Where is a church digging wells for clean water, organizing microcredit loan programs, educating the community in AIDS prevention, and training women and youth in productive, profitable agriculture? Why in the Congo of course where the role of the State in the economic and social development process has been limited to non existent in the fifty seven years since it became a new nation in 1960. Those who are disturbed about government involvement in the economy and even basic services in the U.S. might consider the effects of a “hands off”/”laissez faire” approach to governance in the Congo. One of the richest countries on earth in terms of natural resources ranks 176 out of 185 nations in the world in the most recent UN Human Development Index. The UN development study further figures that 77 per cent of the Congolese population live on the equivalent of less than $1.90 a day.
As a newly “autonomous”, self governing and self sustaining church body in 1965, the Disciples of Christ of the Congo included in its mission the economic and social development of its primarily rural membership in the poorest province of the country. Cattle raising in the fields of the Church’s first mission station, a youth agricultural training farm in the village of Ikengo, a cement block and sand dredging small business, training in sewing and tailoring had all been started and were managed by church staff and volunteers by the late 1960’s. In the early 70’s the Disciples churches had changed the landscape of the provincial capital Mbandaka with the house building program in the Bokatola quarter of the city. With the assistance of missionary couple Millard and Linda Fuller, over one hundred new houses were built using the “sweat equity” approach that became Habitat for Humanity in the U.S. and world wide.
A recent article by the Disciples Church’s Director of Communications updates us on more recent development projects and emphases of the Church’s Development Department. (read the article and others in French at http://natana.tumblr.com/ ) M. Nathan Weteto reports that the former Director of the Ikengo Agricultural Training Center M. Celestin Engelemba now serves as Director of the Department. Assisted by advisors M. Desiré Safari and Disciples missionary Paul Turner, M. Engelemba’s success in restoring and growing the training at Ikengo in the early 2000’s is likely to be duplicated across the vast reach of the Disciples’ churches.
What follows is a photo display depicting some of the current development programs of the Disciples of Christ in Congo. It should also be noted that the Disciples’ contributions to economic advance in the communities they serve has been supported by the Development Department of the Church of Christ of Congo. The Disciples are one of over 60 Protestant church bodies or “Communautés” (Communities) making up the union of Protestant churches in the country.

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Palm Oil Family Production in Congo

 Grower's manual in simple French designed to help Congolese small-scale producers develop sustainable, productive family plantations.
Grower's manual in simple French designed to help Congolese small-scale producers develop sustainable, productive family plantations.

Originating in Africa, the oil palm now leads soy as the most widely grown and widely used oil producing agricultural crop in the world.   Major producers of palm oil are hot, wet tropical lowlands with five to seven hours daily of sunlight, at least 4 inches of rain each month and a yearly rainfall of at least 6 feet.  With Asia now leading in palm oil production and Congo an importer of palm oil, U.S. missionary Ed Noyes at the Lukesele Community Action for Integrated Development (ACDI) is among those promoting family palm oil production in Congo.

 In his blog (http://noyescongo.blogspot.com) of February 10, 2010, Noyes explains, “A family cultivating as little as eight-tenths of an acre (.32 hectare) could boost family annual income by $200, enough to cover most (if not all) health and education expenses for a typical family.”  According to Noyes, since 2002 the Lukesele ACDI agricultural extension program has “has aggressively promoted high-yielding oil palm varieties to replace worn-out family plantations or diversify traditional shifting cultivation”.

 Supplementing the advice of ACDI agricultural agents periodically visiting the 1100 families now growing palms for oil production in the central Kwilu area of Congo, a fine oil palm grower’s booklet has been translated into simple French.  Originally published in English  by the agricultural unit of the U.N., the manual “ has been adapted to the particular needs of small-scale Congolese growers with very limited cash resources”. Highlighted by Ed Noyes in last year’s blog are the “extensive diagrams, pictures (most in color) and informative tables to illustrate the key practices for managing a successful smallholding”.

Copies of the manual can be purchased directly from Lulu Press (click here) at $23.99. (A download copy is available for $3.99.) Mr. Noyes and his colleagues at ACDI expect the manual “will be the kind of resource that helps our small growers move one more step toward independence and responsible stewardship of what God has given them.”

Ed and Miriam Noyes serve with the Baptist Community of the Church of Christ of Congo and the Lusekele Agricultural Development Center.
Ed and Miriam Noyes serve with the Baptist Community of the Church of Christ of Congo and the Lusekele Agricultural Development Center.
 

Congo Can Grow Much More Without Cutting Rainforest

Malaysia Produces Over 40% of the World's Palm Oil Mostly On Plantations Like This One
Malaysia Produces Over 40% of the World's Palm Oil Mostly On Plantations Like This One

After massive deforestation of the Amazon and Indonesian rainforests due to plantation agriculture, economic growth in Congo is being stymied by some environmental groups’ opposition to any rainforest agriculture there.  Palm oil production in particular has been held back in Congo by the debate now raging over any new large scale projects  for biodiesel or other uses.

 In 2007, soon after the election of President Joseph Kabila in Congo, the Chinese company ZTE announced their investment of $1 billion for the cultivation of palm oil trees on 3 million hectares of Congolese soil.  By 2009, the company had reduced the plan to one million hectares, with 90 % of the palm oil produced slated for biodiesel fuel.  To date ZTE has not explained this considerable scaling back of their plan and has been slow to indicate how they will produce palm oil in Equateur, Orientale, West Kasai and Bandundu provinces.

In the first half of the last century, Unilever pioneered in the production of palm oil with their Belgian Congo processing plants and plantations. They have now pulled out of Congo entirely.  Apparently the largest producer of palm oil in the world plans to rely on its supplies in Malaysia and Indonesia, the two nations with 80 % of the world’s output today. The Cambridge World History of Food pays tribute to Unilever for maintaining its Congo operations through the turbulent post-independence years with the words, “Unilever managers remained in place following nationalization in 1975, and the company was allowed to take back full control of the estates two years later (Fieldhouse 1978: 530—45). But at a national level, the research effort was decimated, and new planting was very limited after 1960, in marked contrast to developments at the same time in Southeast Asia.”

A stark sign of the decline of Congo’s agricultural sector is the fact that the country imported 15,000 metric tons of palm oil in 2007, the year the first ZTE China plan was announced.  Imported, manufactured vegetable oil is now cheaper and more widely used in Congolese cooking than locally produced palm oil.  Myself and others who return to Congo after many years are disappointed by how rare “moussaka”, the palm oil sauce, is now used for flavoring of chicken, fish and manioc leaf dishes.   

Tata et Mama Mbwanga showing off the first fruits of their palm oil trees across the river from the Baptist community's Vanga Mission.
Tata et Mama Mbwanga showing off the first fruits of their palm oil trees across the river from the Baptist community's Vanga Mission.

 All who are concerned about the preservation of the Congo rainforest need to keep in mind two facts about Congo’s palm oil production.  First is the fact that there are thousands of hectares of abandoned palm oil plantations in the country.  No cutting of the rainforest is needed for the revival of the industry in Congo.

The second fact about palm oil cultivation in the country is the contribution of small householder plots to the historic growth of the crop in Congo and elsewhere.  According to the Cambridge World History, at the close of the Belgian colonial era, smallholder plots under palm oil cultivation totaled 98,000 hectares while plantations covered 147,000 hectares.   Today, Indonesia produces one third of the world’s palm oil and half of it comes from farmers cultivating fewer than 5 hectares.  

 Greenpeace International, whose Kinshasa office has led in opposing illegal logging of rainforest timber in the country, backs smallholder and plantation cultivation of palm oil in Congo on land that has already been cleared.  With only 4 per cent of cleared land in Congo now under cultivation, the country has the potential to produce palm oil for foodstuffs and biodiesel as well as preserve the most pristine, least “developed” rainforest in the world.

 We can applaud and should support the Congo Disciples plan to convert its coffee plantation in Bokungu to 20 hectares of palm oil production and the Boyeka post‘s palm oil project which is intended to fund education and health programs of the Church.  For several years now, the Baptist community of the Church of Christ of Congo has been promoting palm oil cultivation with provision of seeds and training near their historic post of Vanga.

Palm Oil May Drive Congo’s Economic Growth

Backyard Processing of Palm Oil by an Ikengo Household
Backyard Processing of Palm Oil by an Ikengo Household

The largest fruit crop in the world today is not oranges, pineapple or apples.  It’s palm kernels with production worldwide about double the tonnage of the second leading fruit crop.  While Palmolive soap may be the best known palm oil product in our households, most of the average American’s consumption of palm oil is in the form of margarine and shortening these days.

In the 1960’s the second largest producer of palm oil in the word was the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Today, the Congo’s production of palm oil doesn’t even rank in the top ten worldwide.  From the mid 1970’s corporate owned plantations were looted by cohorts of the Mobutu regime and production continued to decline until recent years. An Indian company took over the Unilever (Palmolive soap) processing plants in Congo and now buys from villagers “who bring us oil after traveling weeks from deep in the bush” according to the company’s Indian chief executive.

Counting on leading the revival of the Congo palm oil industry is a Chinese company with plans to cultivate 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of palm trees in Equateur, Bandundu and West Kasai provinces.  But the Chinese company’s aim is not to market the palm oil for food products: 90 % will go directly for biodiesel replacing petroleum in Congo and elsewhere.

With Africa’s largest expanse of non forest arable land, only 4.7 % of which is now u nder cultivation, Congo’s palm oil and general agricultural potential is tremendous.  An agency of the European Union  devoted to alternative energy projects in Africa cites

Will Palm Oil replace petroleum in powering Congo's vehicles - and ours - some day?
Will Palm Oil replace petroleum in powering Congo's vehicles - and ours - some day?

Congo’s potential to supply all of Central Africa with food, fuel and fiber and to supply one tenth of the world’s bioenergy demand in 2030 “without endangering the rain forests or the food security of its people”.

From Coffee to Corn to Palm Oil

For the rebirth of the Disciples' coffee plantation, Rev. Regine Boole, unloads supplies
For the rebirth of the Disciples' coffee plantation, Rev. Regine Boole, unloads supplies

Even the remote Tshuapa district of the Equateur Province is not immune to the effects of the pricing of agricultural products in the global economy.  In 1970 I visited the Disciples coffee plantation in the Bokungu area of the Tshuapa.  By the late 1990’s the plantation had been abandoned as coffee prices began their fall to unprecedented lows.  The restoration of Vietnamese coffee plantations after the Vietnam War contributed to an over supply of coffee and the drop in prices.  Farmers from Nicaragua to Congo couldn’t afford to grow coffee any longer.

Today, the need for increased food supplies and the leadership of a dynamic recently ordained woman minister have led to the recovery of the Disciples Bokungu plantation.  The only female theology graduate to serve a rural parish, Revde. Regine Boole, has helped the parish of Lotakemela organize a team of 15 workers to clear the overgrown fields and begin new plantings.  The team is assisted by Revde. Boole’s husband and plans an initial planting of 5 hectares of corn.

Profits from the sale of an estimated 5 tons of corn will, it is projected, enable purchase

The main boiler at the Wendji Secli Palm Oil Plantation abandoned in the 1970's
The main boiler at the Wendji Secli Palm Oil Plantation abandoned in the 1970's

of supplies for the cultivation of the remaining 20 hectares and rebirth of the initial project as a palm oil plantation.  Expanding use of palm oil as a fuel alternative to petroleum means this crop, so widely grown in Equateur in the past, now promises price increases and viable profits for visionary growers.

In addition to the Bokungu plantation, the post of Boyeka has already begun planting of palm trees for oil production.  As used palm oil can be processed for fuel, “oil palm planting and palm oil consumption

Housing at the Wendji Secli plantation occupied by former employees and/or descendants
Housing at the Wendji Secli plantation occupied by former employees and/or descendants

circumvents the food vs. fuel debate because it has the capacity to fulfill both demands simultaneously” in the words of Wikpedia.  It does not, however respond to the concern stemming from deforestation wrought by vast palm oil plantations as in Malaysia and Indonesia.  What the effects of the demand for palm oil will be on the Congolese rain forest remains to be seen.